Inspiring E-textile People: Interview with Emilie Giles

Every Friday I will be publishing a full-length untranslated interview with one of the e-textile artists featured in my book "Wearables für Maker: Experimentieren, nähen, gestalten".  These remarkable people are talking about their e-textile practice and perspective, failures and successes, tricks and inspirations.

Emilie Giles - homepage

Artist and Researcher - PhD Student at The Open University and Former Head of Outreach and Participation at Codasign.

courtesy of Emilie Giles

How and when did you get into e-textiles/wearables?
I used to be part of MzTEK, the women’s art and technology group, co-organising events and eventually assisting and teaching workshops. I discovered eTextiles through our project ‘Chi-TEK’, funded by the Arts Council England’s Grants for the Arts, the main output of which was a showcase at the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their Digital Design Weekend. The project enabled us to commission female artists, working with many different technologies, to ‘hack’ a teapot in any way they wanted. Some of the artists used eTextiles to do this and I believe that amazing work is what got me hooked in wanting to work with the medium myself.

Your very first project with e-Textiles?
I would class ‘Hacked Human Orchestra’ as my first ‘proper’ project – before this I had just been tinkering with small things as demonstrations for workshops. This Royal Academy of Engineering funded project was a collaboration between MzTEK and Hannah Perner-Wilson from Kobakant in partnership with Guerilla Science. The project manifested itself as a series of workshops, the results of which were wearable musical instruments that the participants played whilst being filmed, this being turned into a video performance piece by musician Florian Lunaire. We held one workshop at what was the Centre for Creative Collaboration in King’s Cross, London, where participants helped us make soft circuit boards for the instruments. These were then taken (along with printed circuit boards, a lot of conductive thread, T-shirts, batteries and many other things) to the UK festivals Shambala and Wilderness during the Summer of 2012, and where festivalgoers of all ages could make their wonderful wearable pieces! As well as a lot of these people featuring in the film they had an amazing time playing with their creation and walking around the festival wearing it!

A project you are proud of?
Can I choose two? It would have to be either the collaboration between my husband (designer Alan Waldock) and I, ‘The Conductive Craft Company’, or an immersive theatre and research project of the 19th century novella ‘Flatland’, which was supported by the Digital R&D Fund for the Arts.

‘Flatland’ was a collaboration between The Open University, theatre company Extant and creative technologist Ad Spiers. It invited audiences to explore the world of ‘Flatland’ (in the book a 2D world inhabited by shapes of different hierarchies) using a haptic cube device, leading them around a completely dark space, designed this way to give visually impaired and sighted audiences a shared experience. The project investigated how technologies centred around touch and bodily perception can form a new sensory means for audiences to engage with dramatic installations. As part of the set, designed by artist Lyndsey Housden, I created elements of the installations which were made interactive using eTextiles. The main piece I worked on was designed to portray the women in Flatland, who are represented as 2D lines (and therefore points if facing you), and was made as a frame-like structure with fabric stretched around it and with small conductive embroidered dots on it. Upon being touched these dots would vibrate and convey the personalities of different women. This was the first time I had made anything out of an educational purpose and as well as loving the experience I learned a lot from it!

‘The Conductive Craft Company’ means a lot to me as it is very much a personal project. We started it to explore the joining together of traditional craft practice with technology, and with an emphasis on a well designed output. Alan and myself have taught a few workshops as part this project and my particular favourite was one at the V&A in which participants created soft interactive toy robots, or ‘GameBots’, which contained a ‘Simon Says’ style game. We taught the participants how to program an ATtiny in the Arduino IDE, how to cut out and make a soft toy using materials such as felt and toy padding and how to sew a soft circuit. It was a lot of work to prototype this and to teach it and was something we put our hearts and souls into!

Main source of inspiration (Other artists? Tools? Situations?)

People: My two wonderful PhD supervisors, Prof. Janet van der Linden and Prof. Marian Petre for their wisdom and support; Kobakant for their wonderful knowledge and openness with all their amazing projects; Friends and collaborators such as Anna Blumenkranz, Priti Veja and my colleagues at Codasign.

Situations: A lot of my work is participatory based, whether it’s running workshops in museums and galleries such as the V&A or working with participants during research projects. I find that as well as sharing my knowledge and skills with them, they often share their knowledge and skills with me as well.

Favourite tool?

Sewing needle – mainly because I need it for everything.

Favourite component?

Surface LEDs – once you start using these in your eTextile projects it’s hard to go back to through hole!  

Favourite crafting technique?

At the moment I would say spinning is my favourite technique – I do not use much in my eTextile projects but I have been very much enjoying spinning my own yarn for the pleasure of it.  

Favourite trick / hack?

Soldering ATtinys onto stripboard to embed them into fabric. It’s not the most beautiful hack but allows embedding them into objects or garments.

Your most frustrating moment with e-textiles?

When you realise you didn’t calculate the resistance of your conductive thread correctly and your actuators just aren’t getting enough power to them to work!

What do you do if a project doesn't work? How do you approach bugs / problems / failure?
The first thing I do is search online and see if anyone else has had a similar problem – this normally proves to be a big help. If I cannot find any documentation I next email friends and peers for their opinion or post a question about my problem on a forum. Of course I troubleshoot issues myself too using tools such as a multimeter and testing sections of code independently when working with larger amounts of code.

How do you start a new project?

I normally make a lot of notes and sketches first – I have to get pencil and paper out before I do anything. After making some initial designs I begin prototyping, using by making smaller versions of the final piece first and testing them individually. Crocodile clips are of course very useful when testing these pieces.

Advice to e-textile newbies?
Don’t be afraid to experiment! Projects might not always go as planned but that’s ok. You might have to improvise a bit but that is often part of the fun.
ATtiny Creatures. Courtesy of Emilie Giles.

Interactive Toy Workshop by Conductive Craft Company. Courtesy of Emilie Giles.

E-textiles and touch-based interaction for accessibility. Courtesy of Emilie Giles.

Hacked Human Orchestra. Courtesy of Emilie Giles.

E-textile demo swatches. Courtesy of Emilie Giles.

Flatland. Courtesy of Emilie Giles.

Emilie's tools and materials. Courtesy of Emilie Giles.


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